Keystone Progress vs. ALEC

By Keegan Gibson and Jared Edgerton

What’s the difference between model legislation, and improper influence by an interest group?

Michael Morrill, Executive Director of Keystone Progress

Last week the liberal group Keystone Progress accused a number of Pennsylvania lawmakers of copying bills written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization funded in large part by businesses corporations (including Exxon-Mobil, the Koch Foundation and Pittsburgh’s Scaife family).

“We are not talking about legislators following a corporate agenda, there is nothing new in that.” said Eileen Connelly, chair of Keystone Progress. “This is legislation which is used verbatim by legislators who pretend that they wrote these bills.”

The group also accused lawmakers of using taxpayer money to pay for their involvement in ALEC (ie. taking per diems while attending ALEC conferences).

State Rep. Matt Baker (R-Bradford) took exception to his inclusion to the list, and the suggestion that he was kowtowing to an outside group.

“This liberal left wing organization just continues to spin baseless and without foundation propaganda all in an effort to raise funds for their self serving liberal agenda,” he blasted. He also suggested that he may seek legal action against Keystone Progess.

The PA Democratic Party got in on the action, too, launching web ads criticizing ALEC members Reps. Mike Turzai and Daryl Metcalfe.

The use of so-called model legislation – bills written by outside groups for use lobbying members of state government – is far from new. Advocacy groups, non-profits, lobbyists and others use model legislation to tackle a wide range of issues.

State Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Centre) introduced this session a version of the Uniform Child Abduction Prevention Act tailored to Pennsylvania. The so-called “Caylee’s Law,” which gained notoriety after the Casey Anthony trial, is also model legislation. So too was the much-maligned home sprinkler requirement, which as supported by some of PA’s biggest labor unions and was undone by Governor Corbett earlier this year.

“We saw model legislation almost every day; some partisan, some not,” said a former staffer from one of the Democratic caucuses in Harrisburg. “The point that I think people are missing when they criticize model legislation is that there are a lot of good pieces of model legislation. When it’s used wisely, it’s not terrible.”

But when used unfairly it can be harmful, said another staffer, also a Democrat.

“There’s a difference between nonpartisan model legislation and, say, having credit card companies write consumer protection laws,” he said. “Or since we’re talking about ALEC, having oil companies write safety regulations.”

So what’s the big deal about ALEC? PoliticsPA caught up with Keystone Progress and ALEC.

Unaccountable corporate influence in politics, argues Michael Morrill, Executive Director of Keystone Progress.

“Most organizations that offer ‘model legislation’ do so in public. ALEC’s ‘model bills’ are available only to members,” he said “They say that they are open, but the meetings they hold to craft and vote on legislation are not open to the public.”

According to Morrill, ALEC’s funding is equally suspect.

“Over 98% of its [ALEC’s] budget comes from corporations, trade associations and corporate foundations,” said Morrill. “What makes this even worse in Pennsylvania is the fact that many legislators don’t even pay these meager dues.  They are subsidized by ALEC or get their dues paid by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  At least 23 legislators have had their dues paid by taxpayers.”

And finally Morrill unequivocally rejected the suggestion that ALEC is just like the host of other groups that draft model legislation.

“Pennsylvania legislators are copying ‘model bills’ verbatim,” he said. “I have been doing public policy work for decades, but I have never seen legislation that was copied word for word.”

“I have heard the apologists for ALEC say that everybody produces model legislation, but not one of them can point to another bill that was copied verbatim.  If I hear of other legislation that used this cut and paste approach from any source, including our allies, I will just as vociferously denounce that bill.”

ALEC spokeswoman Kaitlyn Buss contends that her organization is right in line with countless other interest groups.

“ALEC does publicize its Initiatives, which summarize much of the policies and ideas discussed at meetings,” she said. “While we retain the actual text of Model Legislation as a benefit of membership, our policy solutions are based in free markets, limited government and individual liberty. Our Model Legislation therefore reflects those principles.”

Likewise with ALEC’s membership.

“We are a private organization and don’t discuss our members’ contributions, but ALEC is most definitely not controlled by any one entity or group.  With over 2,000 legislative members [vs. its 300 companies/organizations in membership], they definitely have the biggest voice,” she said. “Additionally, ALEC is in line with many other similar organizations who receive funding from sources other than their members.”

Buss said that bills are developed in collaboration between ALEC and legislators. Whether they start out identical is irrelevant, she argued.

“Every state has a legislative process. The simple fact is that no matter what ALEC discusses at a conference, each legislator has to make a decision whether it is good for the people he/she represents. If so, whatever may begin as a model bill must go through the legislative process unique to each state. The bills are subject to legal review, committee hearings, amendments and floor debate before legislators vote to reject or adopt it and a governor signs it into law. It’s an entirely democratic and transparent process and to suggest otherwise misleads the public.”

4 Responses

  1. I am writing an article for the local paper
    here in York,PA the title of which is “A Liberal Take on
    The Commonwealth Foundation”. This, of course is the ALEC
    outfit here in PA. A couple of its right wing writers up in Harrisburg sit on those ALEC “study groups” which write the legislation
    for the Republican dominated state legislature. At least once a week, one of their very talented writers gets an article “bashing the liberal left” in the newspaper.
    As an old time liberal, I am 84, I finally decided to
    do something. I wrote the article “bashing” the Commonwealth Foundation using info provided largely by the
    Center for the Media and Democracy. The editor said he would put it in but it was too long. So, now I have to rewrite
    it to get it in the paper.
    But I love doing research on this political stuff -so
    wish me luck.
    Dr. O. David Gold

  2. “What’s the difference between model legislation, and improper influence by an interest group?” I can provide a perfect example.

    PA law gave the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry’s (PDLI) Building Code Review and Advisory Committee responsibility to examine model construction codes and to make decisions on adoption of these minimum standards of safety for new home construction. PDLI supported adoption of the home fire sprinkler provisions in Pennsylvania for the same reasons that ALL national codes now require these important safety systems, to prevent fire death in the home.

    The recommendation for adopting this code came after ample vetting by PDLI following the process that PA law bestowed upon them. The PA builders filed lawsuit, claiming that PDLI should not have adopted the standard. They lost, and the court brief called their arguments “disingenuous” because “the PA builders didn’t get their way”.

    They then turned to the PA legislature, where they yield more power and introduced “model legislation” to prohibit the adoption of the model construction code. The special insterests against this “model legislation” were not “powerful labor unions” as it is “spun” here. It was the life safety community (PA’s fire service and other professionals) against the builders looking to protect their profits and using the current economic environment as a pretext.

    The opposition misled legislators with exagerated prices for these systems, which a national study revealed costs $1.61 a sq. ft. on average, nowhere near the inflated prices quoted by the builders, and much less than upgraded carpeting, granite countertops, etc.; all the “glitter” that allows competition in the market but do nothing to protect people in their homes during a fire. The fact is that research studies have revealed that home fire sprinkler mandates do not influence housing supply and cost.

    While this legislation was being considered 7 children perished in a house fire. Their distraught uncle, a building contractor, decided to rebuild their new home to include sprinklers; sadly too late to make up for the loss of this wonderful family. You would think the legislation would have gotten the message then.

    This legislature erred in siding with the builders; allowing them to influence the prohibition of a “minimum” standard of safety to be included in new homes, affecting many generations of Pennsylvanians who will occupy these homes.

    Minimum standards of safety are “always” included in new products and consumers expect that the products they buy come equipped with minimum standards of safety and are “never” left up to consumer choice.

    Substandard housing is being/or will be built in PA after January 1, 2011; when the requirement would have taken effect. New home buyers or fireighters killed or injured in a home fire, their grieving families and the entire community, will have this legislature to thank for not protecting them and siding with special interest over life safety. I hope they can all sleep at night after that.

  3. Come on, Rep. Baker — can’t you do better than that? “… liberal left wing organization … spin baseless and without foundation propaganda … self serving liberal agenda …” Really? All in one sentence? I must say, that’s a lot of REDUNDANT teabagger-speak. At least vary it a little — like, try to limit yourself to only using “liberal” one time in a sentence, then mix it up by throwing in some other great, big, scary-sounding 1950s-McCarthy-era verbiage that you don’t really understand, like, “socialist”, “communist”, “Marxist”, “Leninist”, “Red-Chinese-inspired”, and “fascist” (yes, technically, the OPPOSITE of communism, but that’s never stopped you & your Fox News-watching ilk from lumping it all together when making ad hominem attacks on organizations that defend the middle-class vs. multinational corporations).

    Here’s a thought: why don’t you call up your friends at ALEC and ask THEM to give you (more) reactionary adjectives? I’m sure the kind folks over there would be more than happy to give you additional meaningless labels to throw at your constituents when they try to hold you accountable.

    Enough said. Now, Rep. Baker, instead of threatening to sic some lawyers on citizens who dare to remind you that you work for them (not ALEC, Glenn Beck, Fox News, or Daryl Metcalfe), why don’t you take some time do something you enjoy. Like, having the big boot of Big Government kick in the door of women’s health clinics and start telling them & their doctors what kind of medical options you’ve decided are appropriate for them?

  4. As usual Ms. Buss’ responses are not entirely informative. For instance She does not advise that any proposed legislation is written by lobbyists or others representing pro-corporate interests. Suggested legislation is often times shopped out to professional lobbyists who draft the legislation – such as the Wendell Cox Consulting firm. Once written to the specifications of the corporation proposing it, the draft is presented to the Board for vote. The private enterprise board members have an equal vote with legislators. If adopted it becomes model legislation disseminated to the states through their member lawmakers.

    Regardless of Buss’ additional claim that it is all transparent, goes through committees, hearings and debate before passing and being signed into law, this does not mean the public is aware of the issue, the proposed legislation or have any voice in the matter. We see this today in WI., OH., IN., AZ. and dozens of other states with healthcare repeal legislation written by and supported by ALEC voter fraud legislation, school privatization legislation and many more. All of these are spreading like a cancer across the country and it is spread through dissemination by ALEC as “model legislation.” States have been urged by ALEC to withdraw from the Western Climate Initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This initiative benefits the public and is detrimental to corporations such as Koch’s refining and oil businesses who are the worst offenders. ALEC and the pro-corporate pushing of states to ignore the WCI and withdraw is detrimental to the environment and citizens alike. The only benefit goes to the corporate members of ALEC.

    ALEC works hard to be opaque rather than transparent – this was shown this month when they refused the credentials of most media and journalist in New Orleans at their Annual Meeting – with the exeception of those outlets sympathetic to their conservative agenda.

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